Reference Entry

King, Martin Luther, Sr.

Jennifer R. Lyons

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
King, Martin Luther, Sr.

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pastor, community leader, and activist. Born Michael King in Stockbridge, Georgia, King was the son of James King and Delia Lindsay King. The family worked as sharecroppers and grew to include nine children, though one child died before reaching a month of age. Named after his father's brother but called “Mike” by family and friends, King began his schooling at the Bryant Preparatory School in Stockbridge. The school's principal, Charles Clayton, encouraged King to register to vote, a feat in the Jim Crow era, and acted as teacher and mentor to King. King was forced to leave school early in order to help his family on the farm. His task was to plow the fields using a mule, and he was often teased for it by his peers.Young King suffered many incidents in which whites yelled racial slurs, and as a child he observed a man being beaten to death for his color. Once he himself was badly beaten by a mill owner while running an errand for his mother. Delia King was a devoted churchgoer and introduced King to music and oratory in the Stockbridge Baptist Church. King's relationship with his father was a difficult one. His father drank and always wanted King to stay home and help on the farm, not caring about his son's further development. During adolescence King departed for periods of time to work as a traveling preacher; payment for his work came in livestock. At age fourteen he ran away, but his mother insisted that he return home.King left Stockbridge for the second time at age eighteen. He worked as a railway worker, as a truck driver, and then as a preacher in Atlanta at East Point, a church founded by blacks who moved to Atlanta from Stockbridge. Few blacks in Stockbridge were able to study further than the eighth grade in school, but once in Atlanta, King found that he needed additional education in order to explain himself adequately, gain confidence, and have the impact he desired within and outside the church.King was also advised by the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, whom he came to know personally through his relationship with Williams's daughter Alberta. King met Alberta when she was a student at Spelman Seminary and soon after announced to her father his intention to marry her. In 1926 King married Alberta Williams. Reverend Williams was an important black community leader in Atlanta. His involvement in the NAACP and membership in the Atlanta Civic League, in which black and white leaders convened to attempt to cool race-related problems, combined with a belief in nonviolence, inspired King.Williams encouraged King to attend college, which seemed impossible to King as well as to Morehouse College school administrators, who after viewing his entrance-exam results deemed him unfit for higher education. King, however, with help from Williams, gained admittance to Morehouse and graduated at age thirty with a BA in theology. Williams also instructed King, who was then working as a pastor at East Point and College Park, in how to run a church. In 1931, upon Williams's death and shortly after completing his education, King took over as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He began to use the name Martin Luther King Sr. in 1934.King did not hesitate to use the church as a place to voice beliefs on discrimination against blacks. Consequently he and his family were threatened repeatedly by the Ku Klux Klan and others. Later King endorsed political candidates, such as John F. Kennedy, in his church. He was an active member of the NAACP and a board member of black institutions in Atlanta. Over time he developed relationships with whites—including William B. Hartsfield, who became mayor of Atlanta in 1947—leading to positive changes for blacks in Atlanta.King had three children: Willie Christine King (born in 1927), Martin Luther King Jr. (born in 1929), and Alfred Daniel “A. D.” King (born in 1930). Needless to say their opportunities were far beyond those of their father. Education was important to King. Willie Christine King attended Spelman Seminary and later Columbia University Teachers College. Martin Luther King Jr. attended Morehouse College, then attended the Crozier Seminary in Pennsylvania, and ultimately earned a PhD from Boston University. When King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, King Sr. traveled with him to Oslo for the occasion. A. D. King chose not to pursue higher education and worked in the insurance business in Atlanta, though later he turned to preaching, which pleased his father.King Jr. endured numerous threats to his life. King Sr. used his political contacts to attempt protection, but his son's assassination in 1968 at the hand of James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, deeply saddened his father. In 1969 King Jr.'s assassination was followed by the drowning of King Jr.'s own younger son Alfred, who had taken the position of copastor at Ebenezer following his father's death. In 1974 King Sr.'s wife was shot at Ebenezer Baptist Church by the mentally insane Marcus Chenault. Despite these personal losses and the violence and discrimination he witnessed, King remained committed to nonviolence and forgiveness. Though at times deemed stubborn, bad-tempered, and shallow, he was undeniably hardworking, determined, and devoted to church and family. King died of heart disease on 11 November 1984 in Atlanta at the age of eighty-six.

Reference Entry.  985 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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